12 year-old Johnny McFarley (Marc Marut) is a paperboy who desperately wants to be a part of a stable family. He wants Melissa Thorpe (Alexandra Paul) to be his mother but Melisssa has moved to a different town. Johnny solves that problem by suffocating Melissa’s mother with a plastic bag, which causes Melissa to return home. That’s one way to do it!
As soon as Melissa and her daughter, Cammie (Brigid Tierney), move into Melissa’s mother’s old house, Johnny starts making himself indispensable by doing things like mowing the lawn for free. He also does things like break into the house in the middle of the night, plant hidden cameras, and demand that Melissa bake him a pie. He wants Melissa to be his mother and because Melissa feels sorry for him, she indulges Johnny and his mood swings. Even after everyone else in the neighborhood tells her that Johnny is a little bit off, Melissa continues to allow him into the house. Not even the crazy religious lady saying that Johnny has “the mark of Cain” can dissuade Melissa.
Johnny will do anything to make Melissa his new mother. But then Brian (William Katt), Melissa’s boyfriend, shows up and Johnny really goes off the deep end.
The Paperboy is an adequate killer child film. Marc Marut gives a good performance as the creepy and disturbed Johnny and the movie does make an attempt to provide him with a believable backstory to explain why he’s become the little killer that he is. The kills are all imaginatively staged and all the more disturbing because they feature a child as the killer and that really is the whole point of the whole psycho kid genre. The main problem with the movie is that Melissa keeps overlooking Johnny’s clearly unstable behavior. At the point when just about anyone else would have told Johnny to stay away and perhaps even called the cops on the little bugger, Melissa keeps letting him back into her life. By the time that Melissa finally realizes that maybe Johnny actually is as dangerous as everyone has been telling her, you’re too frustrated with her to care.
One good thing about The Paperboy is that it features William Katt in a supporting role. If there’s ever a Late Night Cinemax Hall of Fame, William Katt will be entitled to an entire wing. Even though he spent the majority of the 90s appearing in low-budgets movies like this one, Katt always gave a good performance, like he does here.
Allie Jones (Bridget Fonda) is an always fashionable software designer who is living in New York City and who has just broken up with her cheating lover, Sam (Steven Weber). She has pretty hair, a big apartment, a closet full of nice clothes, and a totally devoted gay best friend.
Hedra Carlson (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is shy and socially awkward and in need of someone who will give her a cute nickname like “Hedy.” She has pretty hair that’s just slightly less pretty than Allie’s, a job at a bookstore, a dead twin sister, a pair of really nice earrings, and a television that only seems to show old black-and-white movies.
Together …. THEY SOLVE CRIMES!
No, actually, they don’t. Instead, Hedy answers an ad that Allie placed about needing a new roommate. Even though Allie was thinking of asking another homeless woman to move in with her, Hedy impresses Allie by fixing her sink. Seriously, how can you turn down a potential roommate who knows how to do simple plumbing? Allie invited Hedy to live with her and, at first, everything is great. Hedy even brings home a dog that Allie quickly falls in love with. However, then Sam shows back up and we quickly discover just how obsessed Hedy has become with her roommate.
Single White Female was originally released way back in 1992 and, even if you’re viewing it for the very first time, you’ll probably feel a sense of deja vu while watching the movie. This is one of those films that has been so endlessly imitated and has been unofficially remade so many times that you probably already know everything that happens in the film, regardless of whether you’ve actually sat through it or not. A few years ago, there was a film called The Roommate that basically was Single White Female, just with a college setting and a bit less of a subversive subtext. As well, I’ve lost count of the number of Lifetime films that have basically ripped off Single White Female‘s plot. Any time that a new friend proves herself to be excessively clingy, chances are that she’s going to get compared to Jennifer Jason Leigh in this film.
And yet, despite all of the imitations, Single White Female still holds up surprisingly well. A lot of that is because Single White Female was directed by Barbert Schroeder. Schroeder started his career as a disciple of the French New Wave and, much like Paul Verhoeven, his American films tend to be genre films with just enough of a subversive subtext to stick in your mind afterwards.
For example, Single White Female is often describes as being a film about “the roommate from Hell” but what always seems to be missed is that, especially during the film’s first half, Allie is often as bad of a roommate as Hedy. For instance, when Allie comes home late after spending two days with Sam, Hedy is pissed off and waiting for her. On the surface, the scene is the first indication that Hedy has become obsessed with Allie. But, at the same time, Hedy actually is making a valid point. After repeatedly telling Hedy that she wants nothing to do with Sam, Allie runs off and spends two days with him without bothering to call home once. Though Hedy may have been a bit too quick to yell, she still had every right to be annoyed.
In fact, Allie really is a bit of self-centered character. She impulsively invited Hedy to live with her and then, just as impulsively, she gets back together with Sam and decides that it’s time for Hedy to move out. Of course, then Hedy tosses a dog out of a window and you pretty much lose whatever sympathy you may have had for her.
Still, you can’t help but feel that, just as Hedy wants to be Allie, there’s a part of Allie that would like to be Hedy. Hedy does all the things that Allie’s scared to do. When Allie is sexually harassed and nearly raped by a client, Hedy’s the one who actually gets revenge. While Allie tries to get over and suppress her anger at Sam, Hedy’s the one who acts on that anger. Just Hedy seems to need Allie’s life to be happy, Allie seems to need Hedy’s anger to survive. In short, there’s a lot more going on underneath the surface of Single White Female than its reputation might lead you to presume.
Not surprisingly, the film is dominated by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance. When Hedy first appears, Leigh plays her as just being slightly off. She has some obvious confidence issues but, at the same time, she comes across as being so innocent and naive that you can’t help but want to protect her. You find yourself wondering how she could have possibly survived living in a city like New York. It’s only as the film progresses that you start to discover that Hedy was never particularly naive and everything that she’s done and said has basically been about manipulating the people around her. And yet, even after Hedy has started killing dogs and people, you can’t help but feel a strange empathy (though not necessarily sympathy) for her. There’s an emptiness to Hedy, an emptiness that she attempts to fill by stealing the personalities of the people around her and Leigh does a great job of expressing the pain that would come from not having an identity of your own. Plus, poor Hedy just seemed so happy with Allie said that she liked her earrings! I mean, I just can’t imagine being that insecure but I get the feeling it would really suck.
(Fortunately, I’ve also never really had a truly bad roommate situation. One advantage of having three older sisters is knowing that you’ll always have someone to stay with.)
Despite all of the imitations and rip-offs that have come out over the years, both Single White Female and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance hold up remarkably well. I’d recommend watching it before inviting anyone to come live with you. If nothing else, you’ll at least learn what stiletto heels are really for.
— Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie) in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
Even among fans of the show, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is controversial.
If you read Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks, you’ll discover that many members of the television show’s cast either didn’t want to be involved in the film or didn’t care much for it when it came out. Fearful of being typecast, Kyle MacLachlan only agreed to play Dale Cooper on the condition that his role be greatly reduced. (Was it that fear of being typecast as clean-cut Dale Cooper that led to MacLachlan later appearing in films like Showgirls?) Neither Lara Flynn Boyle nor Sherilyn Fenn could work the film into their schedules.
When Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me premiered at Cannes, it was reportedly booed by the same critics who previously applauded Lynch’s Wild at Heart and who, years later, would again applaud Mulholland Drive. When it was released in the United States, the film was savaged by critics and a notorious box office flop. Quentin Tarantino, previously a fan of Lynch’s, has been very outspoken about his hatred of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. When I first told people that we would be looking back at Twin Peaks for this site, quite a few replied with, “Even the movie?”
And yet, there are many people, like me, who consider Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me to be one of David Lynch’s most haunting films.
It’s also one of his most straight forward. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a prequel, dealing with the events leading up to the death of Laura Palmer. Going into the film, the viewer already knows that Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is full of secrets. They know that she is using drugs. They know that she is dating Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), while secretly seeing James (James Marshall). They know about her diary and her relationship with the reclusive Harold (Lenny Von Dohlen). They know that she is a friend to innocent Donna Hayward (Moria Kelly, somewhat awkwardly taking the place of Lara Flynn Boyle). Even more importantly, they know that she has spent the last six years of her life being abused by BOB (Frank Silva) and that BOB is her father, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise). The viewer starts the story knowing how it is going to end.
Things do get off to a somewhat shaky start with a nearly 20-minute prologue that basically plays like a prequel to the prequel. Theresa Banks, who was mentioned in the show’s pilot, has been murdered and FBI director Gordon Cole (David Lynch) assigns agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) to investigate. Chester and Sam’s investigation basically amounts to a quick reenactment of the first season of Twin Peaks, with the agents discovering that Theresa was involved in drugs and prostitution. When Chester vanishes, Dale Cooper is sent to investigate. Harry Dean Stanton shows up as the manager of a trailer park and David Bowie has an odd cameo as a Southern-accented FBI agent who has just returned from the Black Lodge but otherwise, the start of the film almost feels like a satire of Lynch’s style.
But then, finally, we hear the familiar theme music and the “Welcome to Twin Peaks” sign appears.
“And the angel’s wouldn’t help you. Because they’ve all gone away.”
— Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
A year has passed since Theresa Banks was murdered. The rest of the film deals with the final few days of the life of doomed homecoming queen Laura Palmer. Laura smiles in public but cries in private. She is full of secrets that she feels that she has to hide from a town that has literally idolized her. She has visions of terrifying men creeping through her life and each day, she doesn’t know whether it will be BOB or her father waiting for her at home. She knows that the world considers her to be beautiful but she also know that, within human nature, there is a desire to both conquer and destroy beauty. When she sleeps, she has disturbing dreams that she cannot understand but that she knows are important. At a time when everyone says she should be happy to alive, all she can think about is death. Everywhere she goes, the male gaze follows and everything that should be liberating just feels her leaving more trapped. For all the complaints that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is somehow too strange to be understood, it’s not a strange film at all. This is David Lynch at his most straight forward. Anyone who thinks that Laura’s story is incomprehensible has never been a 17 year-old girl.
This is the bleakest of all of David Lynch’s films. There is none of broad humor or intentional camp that distinguished the TV show. After the show’s occasionally cartoonish second season, the film served as a trip into the heart of the darkness that was always beating right underneath the surface of Twin Peaks. It’s interesting how few of the show’s regulars actually show up in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. None of the characters who represented goodness are present. There’s no Doc Hayward. No Sheriff Truman. No Deputies Andy or Hawk. No Pete Martell. No Bookhouse Boys. Scenes were filmed for some of them but they didn’t make it into the final cut because their tone did not fit with the story that Lynch was seeking to tell. The Hornes, Dr. Jacoby, Josie, none of them are present either.
Instead, there’s just Larua and her father. As much as they try to deny it, Laura knows that she is going to die and Leland knows that he is going to kill her. Killer BOB and the denziens of the Black Lodge may be scary but what’s truly terrifying is the sight of a girl living in fear of her own father. Is Leland possessed by BOB or is BOB simply his way of excusing his own actions? If not for Leland’s sickness, would BOB even exist? When Laura shouts, “Who are you!?” at the spirit of BOB, she speaks for every victim of abuse who is still struggling to understand why it happened. For all the talk of the Black Lodge and all the surreal moments, the horror of this film is very much the horror of reality. Leland’s abuse of Laura is not terrifying because Leland is possessed by BOB. It’s terrifying because Leland is her father
David Lynch directs the film as if it where a living nightmare. This is especially evident in scenes like the one where, at the dinner table, Leland switches from being kindly to abusive while Laura recoils in fear and her mother (Grace Zabriskie) begs Leland to stop. It’s a hard scene to watch and yet, it’s a scene that is so brilliantly acted and directed that you can’t look away. As brilliant as Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie are, it’s Sheryl Lee who (rightly) dominates the scene and the rest of the film, giving a bravely vulnerable and emotionally raw performance. In Reflections, Sheryl Lee speaks candidly about the difficulty of letting go of Laura after filming had been completed. She became Laura and gave a performance that anchors this absolutely terrifying film.
“Mr. Lynch’s taste for brain-dead grotesque has lost its novelty.”
— Janet Maslin
“It’s not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be”
— Vincent Canby
If you need proof that critics routinely don’t know what they’re talking about, just go read some of the original reviews of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
And yet, having just rewatched the show and now the movie, I can understand why critics and audiences were baffled by this film. This is not Twin Peaks the TV show. There is no light to be found here. There is no comic relief. (Even Bobby Briggs, who had become something of a goofy anti-hero by the time the series ended, is seen here shooting a man in the head.) There is no exit and there is no hope. In the end, the film’s only comfort comes from knowing that Laura was able to save one person before dying. It’s not easy to watch but, at the same time, it’s almost impossible to look away. The film ends on Laura’s spirit smiling and, for the first time, the smile feels real. Even if she’s now trapped in the Black Lodge, she’s still free from her father.
Since this was a prequel, it didn’t offer up any answers to the questions that were left up in the air by the show’s 2nd season finale. Fortunately, those questions will be answered (or, then again, they may not be) when the third season premieres on Showtime on May 21st.
Finally, I am getting a chance to continue my series of Back to School reviews!
Earlier today, we had a pretty big storm down here in Texas and it knocked out the electricity for three and a half hours! There I was, sitting in the dark and wondering if I would ever get a chance to review the 16th movie in this 56-film review series.
(Originally, I was planning on being done by this weekend but, as always seems to happen whenever I do a review series, I’m currently running behind so it’ll probably won’t be until the weekend after next that I post my final Back to School review.)
Fortunately, the Oncor truck eventually showed up in the alley. I, of course, ran out into the back yard and started to shout at them, “I need power! I have movies to review!” They must have heard me because, suddenly, the power came back on. And now, I can finally get around to sharing a few thoughts on the original, 1984 version of The Karate Kid!
Up until last night, believe it or not, I had never seen The Karate Kid before. Certainly, I knew about it. Much like Star Wars and Star Trek, The Karate Kid is one of those cultural landmarks that everyone knows about even if they haven’t actually sat down and watched the movie. Even before I watched the film, I knew about Mr. Miyagi. I knew about “wax on” and “wax off.” I knew about the crane. I even knew about “You’re alright, LaRusso!”
But I hadn’t actually seen the film and I have to admit that I was a little bit hesitant about doing so. Everything I had heard about The Karate Kid made it sound like a thoroughly predictable and excessively 80s sports film. I was expecting the film to be all about power ballads and training montages and uplifting dialogue and certainly, The Karate Kid had a lot of that.
But what took me by surprise is what a genuinely sweet movie The Karate Kid is. Yes, it’s predictable and it’s full of clichés but dammit, it all works. It still brought tears to my mismatched eyes.
The karate kid of the title is Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), who moves, with his mother, from New Jersey to California. Daniel’s a nice kid who has learned a little karate from reading books but he’s still no match for the bullies at his new high school. Daniel does get a girlfriend, Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue, giving a performance that feels far more genuine than any of her more recent work), but even that leads to him getting in trouble. It turns out that Ali’s ex-boyfriend is Johnny (William Zabka), the top student at Cobra Kai. Oddly enough, Johnny’s teacher is also named John. John Kreese (Martin Kove) is a Vietnam veteran who decorates his dojo with pictures of himself looking threatening. Kreese, we soon discover, is a total psychopath. “NO MERCY!” he shouts at this students.
When Johnny and his fellow Cobra Kai students beat up Daniel on Halloween, Daniel’s life is saved by Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita). Mr. Miyagi may appear to just be a simple maintenance man but he’s actually a total badass. He teaches Daniel not only the moves of karate (“Wax on…wax off…”) but the philosophy as well. He explains to Daniel that there are “No bad students. Just bad teacher.” In short, he is the exact opposite of Kreese.
Who is the better teacher? That’s a question that will be answered when Daniel faces off against the Cobra Kai bullies at the Under-18 All-Valley Karate Tournament. Can Daniel defeat Johnny, win Ali’s love, and earn the right to live free of harassment?
Well, it would be a pretty depressing movie if he didn’t…
Anyway, The Karate Kid turned out to be a really sweet and likable movie. I was never surprised by the movie’s plot but I still found myself being drawn into the story and hoping that everything would work out for Daniel and Ali. The character of Mr. Miyagi has been parodied in so many other films that I was a bit surprised to see just how good Pat Morita was in the role. Yes, Morita gets to say a lot of funny lines but he also gets a rather harrowing dramatic scene where talks about how his wife and child died while he was away, serving in the army.
It’s interesting to note that, at the end of the film, even Johnny got to show a glimmer of humanity, suggesting that even the worst jerk in the world can be redeemed by a good ass-kicking. That said, Kreese is pure evil from beginning to end and Johnny’s friend, Dutch (played by Chad McQueen), is about as scary a high school bully as I’ve ever seen. But at least Johnny is willing to admit the truth.
In my previous two Back To School reviews, I took a look at two classic teen comedies. Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Risky Business both used and manipulated the standard teen comedy trappings to tell unusually nuanced stories about growing up. These are films that used the audience’s familiarity with the genre to tell stories that ultimately challenged the viewer’s preconceived notions and expectations. Having considered those two films, let us now consider Private School, a film that used all of the standard teen comedy clichés to make a very standard teen comedy.
For instance, the film tells the story of two groups of three. There’s the three girls who attend Cherryvale Academy: good girl Christine (Phoebe Cates), bad (and rich) girl Jordan (Betsy Russell), and vaguely asexual tomboy Betsy (Kathleen Wilhoite). And then there’s three guys who attend Freemount Academy. There’s a fat guy named Bubba (Michael Zorek), a short guy named Roy (Jonathan Prince) and a nice guy named Jim (Matthew Modine). Bubba is dating Betsy. Christine is dating Jim. Jordan is dating no one because she’s too busy trying to steal Christine’s boyfriend. Roy is also single, largely because adding a fourth girl would throw off the film’s group-of-three dichotomy.
There’s also a lot of boobs, largely because Private School was made to appeal to teenage boys and you really have to wonder how many of them left the theater thinking that all they had to do to get a girl to disrobe was spill some fruit juice on her dress and then suggest that she take it off. There’s even a scene where Jordan rides a horse naked because — well, why not?
And then there’s an extended sequence where each of the three boys puts on a wig, a red dress, way too much lipstick and then sneak into the girl’s dormitory because cross-dressing is always good for a few easy laughs. Despite their best attempts to speak in falsetto voices, Jim, Bubba, and Roy make for three of the least convincing women that I’ve ever seen but, to the film’s credit, that’s kind of the point. It’s a stupid plan that leads to stupid results.
Of course, the film is also full of terrible adult authority figures. And why not? It’s not like anyone over the age of 18 was ever going to watch the film. So, of course, Jordan’s father is going to be lecherous old perv with a trophy wife. And, of course, all of Cherryvale’s teachers are going to be a collection of spinsters and alcoholics. In the end, the only adult who isn’t a raging hypocrite is the friendly town pharmacist (played by Martin Mull) who, of course, is mostly present so he can make Jim feel nervous about buying condoms.
And, ultimately, Private School is one of those films that wants to be racy and dirty (in order to appeal to teenage boys) while also being sweet and romantic (in order to appeal to teenage girls). The main plot revolves around Jim and Christine’s plans to go away for a weekend so that they can have sex for the first time and the film actually handles this pretty well. Matthew Modine and Phoebe Cates both have a really sweet chemistry. They’re a really cute couple and you hope the best for them. But there’s just so many complications, the majority of which could have been avoided by Jim not being an idiot. It never seems to occur to Jim that maybe he’d finally be getting laid if he wasn’t always doing things like dressing up in drag and trying to sneak into the girl’s dormitory.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Private School is a terrible film. As far as boob-obsessed teen sex comedies go, Private School is actually pretty well-done and watchable. The cast is likable and director Noel Black keeps the action moving. Even the film’s nominal villain is likable, with Betsy Russell playing Jordan as being more mischievous than spiteful. But, ultimately, what makes Private School memorable is the fact that it is so predictable, that it does literally contain every single cliché that one would expect to find in a teen comedy. This is a film so determined to not bring anything new to the genre that it becomes an oddly fascinated study in how to maintain a status quo.
In fact, perhaps the most innovative thing about Private School is the song that plays over the opening credits. The song — which is called You’re Breakin’ My Heart and is performed by Harry Nilsson — starts with: “You’re breaking my heart/you’re tearing it apart/so fuck you…”
That’s about as close to being subversive as Private School ever gets.
John Carpenter has had quite a bad string of films that fail to live up to the standards he has set with his past works and those fans of his films who have seen him as a master of the genre. In 1995 he came up with a very good film that paid homage to two master writers of the horror-fantasy genre. Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness was a very good film that thrilled both his fans and those of the horror genre.
Sam Neill stars as insurance investigator John Trent who’s hired by publishing editor Jackson Harglow (played by Charlton Heston in a brief role) to find one of their star novelist: the extremely popular horror novelist, Sutter Crane (played with weird creepiness by Jurgen Prochnow). It seems Crane has disappeared and cut off all contact with his handlers just as his latest horror novel’s released. Throughout the beginning of the film there’s a sense that Crane’s latest book has more than an entertaining effect on those who’ve bought and read it. Homicidal individuals Trent encounters throughout the film and all linked to Crane’s book and what he thought was a fictional New England town used in all of Crane’s books. The town of Hobb’s End was a definite homage to Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft who also created the fictional towns of Castle Rock and Arkham to locate many of their stories.
Neill does a great job of conveying Trent’s bewildered, confused and ultimate descent into the mouth of madness Crane’s writings seem to have opened in reality itself. From the weirdly peculiar to obscenely homicidal going-ons by the townspeople of Hobb’s End, Trent’s logical nature is put to the test by the Lovecraftian situations and events he witnesses as his search for Sutter Crane leads from him from one horror to the next. The characters created by Lovecraft in his Cthulhu Mythos were never mentioned in Michael De Luca’s script but the essense of these otherworldly beings of pure malice and evil permeates throughout the film. There’s never been a successful attempt to film a Lovecraft story into a feature-length production (until recent news brought word that Guillermo Del Toro plans to do just that with his adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness), but In the Mouth of Madness comes close to achieving it. Even the wooden and under-inspired performance by Julie Carmen as Linda Styles, as Crane’s literary agent and Trent’s partner in his search, couldn’t bring this film down. Carpenter does a great job of taking De Luca’s script and creating a story where reality and madness slowly and inexorably begin to mesh to the point neither Trent or the audience knows what is real anymore. The end of the film was great in that Carpenter eschews the usual happy ending of most horror movies and instead finishes the madness he started and sees it through its end just like Trent.
In the Mouth of Madness showed that John Carpenter was still a master of his craft when given the right script to work with. He mixes to great effect homages to works of both Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft. His film also does a great job of instilling not just fear and horror of the unknown, but also that of losing one’s mind and not knowing whats real and what’s not. Despite not doing great business in the box-office, In the Mouth of Madness was a very good film that people in 1995 weren’t just prepared to appreciate. Maybe with Guillermo Del Toro’s turn to adapt Lovecraft will bring horror and film fans to check out one film that almost succeeded in doing what Del Toro is attempting.